Brevity Fifteen

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Wednesday, Cracker Barrel Restaurant

By Rebecca McClanahan

Crackertown, my nephew once called this place, which made a kind of toddling sense: town of Cracker, island off the coast of Frontage Road, where time tries its hardest to forget where it's heading, the past rattling around in gadgets, trinkets, knickknacks, tchotchkes, so many consonants clanging together make something like music in my head or maybe it's the blur of the past few days, the odometer adding up the difference between home and husband and interstate obligations. Yesterday my widowed aunt waved me on my way: A woman alone must be careful, she said. Lock your doors, hide the luggage, find a safe resting stop.

I nodded as if this were news, though I always err on caution's side, and if truth be told (and what would we tell truth that it doesn't already know?) what I need is for someone to shout Be careless! as I back out of the driveway, out of the life I steer so straightly. Half her age, I'm older than my aunt will ever be. She sweeps her closet of last season's clothes, her garage of outdated models. Eldest daughter of dust bowl farmers, she knows the past too well to put much store in it. That plow, for instance, hanging behind the cashier's stand, or that scythe, or the butter churn the waitress jostles as she hands me the menu of daily specials a child could count on seven fingers, could bet his young life on: Monday's meat loaf and gravy, Salisbury steak Tuesdays. Why does this make me so happy and sad? It' s Wednesday, chicken and dumplings, and beside me a couple so alike they must be married suddenly bow their heads. They've not said a word to each other but now say several to God, asking him to please bless this food to its intended purpose and us to thy service, which makes me remember yesterday's talk radio somewhere in Kentucky, a woman telling how she and her groom knelt beside the bed in the honeymoon suite asking God to please bless this union. Once, walking a quiet street on Sunday morning, I heard a man cry Oh God! from an open window, the vowels round and holy, then oh god oh god oh god, a lower-case repetition that hurried me home to my husband, who by his own admission is not a godly man, but who knows my needs before I ask.

It has not always been this good between us, and who knows what the future holds in its long, slim hands? Not long ago at another Cracker Barrel I met a married man who was not my husband. Not by chance, but by assignation: I like the word, so close to assignment, a task given by someone in charge, and what else to do but complete it, how else to move on? We were still just considering, and I thought the place might dissuade us: fathers mostly plump and harmless, dimpled mothers, children fresh from the Baby Changing Station. If change is possible, I thought, best to do it early, no time like the present. I turned my anniversary diamond blatantly to the light. The waitress tapped her pencil. I strayed from the daily special. He ordered something risky for a man of his age.

Now, at the checkerboard beside the hearth, a father and son keep jumping each other, and I think about displacement, replacement, the son crowning the father, the father the son. I imagine my aunt playing checkers with her husband, and me with mine decades from now, having survived--I started to say without regrets, but how to know in advance what will curse, what will bless, when to steer in another direction? We left the table, the married man and I, and walked out to the porch lined with rocking chairs, one emptied so recently it still held someone's rhythm. The chairs faced a highway that was once a working field. Leisure is another kind of sadness: staring out from your chair and longing to be used, broken even, if that's what it takes. Some country singer's history vibrated the speakers above our heads, and the man smiled, rolled his eyes, made a joke about this restaurant being famous for its music, which is exactly what my husband would have said, and that was it, that sealed it, we were both off the hook, our lives free, for now, to return to us, the rockers tipping forward, back, forward.


 

Rebecca McClanahan has published eight books, most recently The Riddle Song
and Other Rememberings
(essays), Naked as Eve (poetry). and Word Painting: A
Guide to Writing More Descriptively
. Her work has appeared in The Best American
Essays
and The Best American Poetry, and she has received a Pushcart Prize,
the Wood prize from Poetry, and the Carter prize for the essay from Shenandoah.
She lives in New York City and teaches in the MFA Program at Queens
University in Charlotte and the Kenyon Review Writers Program.

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